Since May, more than 30 whales have been found dead on the pacific coast without explanation.
11 fin whales, 14 humpbacks, one gray whale and four unidentified cetaceans were found dead in the western gulf of Alaska. Six more whales were found dead off the coast of British Columbia including four humpbacks, one sperm and one fin whale.
The unknown cause behind the deaths prompted the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare it an “Unusual Mortality Event” last month. But after investigation, scientists think a widespread algae bloom located off the coast could be suspect in the deaths. NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle told the Guardian:
“Our leading theory at this point is that the harmful algal bloom has contributed to the deaths. But we have no conclusive evidence. The bottom line is we don’t know what’s causing these deaths.”
Scientists have already been monitoring a large stretch of warm water that started out off the coast of Alaska two years ago and has grown to almost 500 miles across. “The Blob,” as it has been named, is several degrees warmer than the surrounding ocean and has caused a record algae bloom spanning the West Coast from Alaska to California.
However, the fast rate of decomposition makes it nearly impossible to sample the dead whales, meaning there may never be a definitive conclusion. Scientists do know of one species of phytoplankton that produces a neurotoxin, which enters the food chain in smaller fish and birds, can cause disorientation and fatal seizures in severe cases.
Although the death count is almost three times the historic average annual mortality rate, whale populations are not overly affected. Marine mammal specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant marine advisory program and on-site coordinator of the UME investigation Bree Witteveen tells Yahoo Canada News:
“From a population perspective, the level of deaths that we’ve seen are not likely to have much of an impact. It’s more of a warning sign.”
Arctic ice is melting at an extreme pace, due to climate change, and it’s threatening the walrus. The melting ice is so drastic, it is forcing thousands of walruses to crowd onto the shore of a remote barrier island off Alaska.
The first reported sighting of the walruses came from a photographer on August 23 on the shore of the Chukchi Sea. It was then confirmed 4 days later by villagers in the remote area of Point Lay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Such huge gatherings, called haul-outs, are dangerous because walruses are easily spooked by aircrafts or onlookers, which could cause potentially fatal stampedes. Last year, as many as 40,000, mostly females and their young, were forced ashore – the largest known haul-out of its kind in the U.S. Arctic. – and around 60 young walruses were killed because of crowding and stampedes.
The Federal Aviation Authority had to re-route flights and tell pilots to keep their distance to avoid stampedes. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros told The Guardian:
“Walruses often flee haul-outs in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines. Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead.”
Many of the walruses seem to prefer hauling out on these barrier islands north of the native village of Point Lay. The villagers dread these record size haul-outs, Point Lay tribal president Leo Ferreira III said:
“We do not believe that these sorts of visits are in the best interest of the walruses and they do not align with the haul out protection role we have developed and measures we set in place to prevent disturbances.”
Since 2000, these forced migrations and haul-outs have become an more and more common. But this year, the sea ice fell to new lows because of rising temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. Some scientists now believe that the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer months by the 2030s, which will have detrimental effects on surrounding human and wildlife populations.